DOING THINGS I NEVER DREAMED ABOUT
In early 2022, we received an email from Marek asking for a single shoe and pedal. Understandably this isn’t a common request we get. We were intrigued. What we would come to discover was the story of a remarkable individual who, through unbelievable adversity, had never uttered the phrase "give up." These words simply do not exist in Marek's vocabulary.
After a nasty motorcycle accident in 2013, Marek awoke 2 weeks later to an amputated leg, broken spine, and paralyzed arm. This is Marek's story.
Crankbrothers: Ok, let's start with an easy one. Who is Marek? Where are you from? What do you do? Tell us everything.
Marek Turkiewicz: Hi guys! Good to see you! My name is Marek, I am a 34-year-old doctor of radiology from Poland. I work in the oncology hospital, where I analyze CT and MRI scans. I love riding bikes. I am an amputee with brachial plexus palsy.
CB: How did your passion for riding start?
MT: I began mountain biking 20 years ago with a close friend named Marek. As teenagers, we built and hit jumps together, often repaired our bikes in Marek's basement, and watched mountain biking films like New World Disorder and Kranked. Throughout the years, I have met many wonderful people in the mountain biking community and have formed close friendships with some of them. To be honest, the people are what I love most about this sport.
CB: Did you ever race or do any competitions? Or was it always just fun?
MT: No, I didn’t. It was always just for fun.
CB: Ok, so in 2013 you had a nasty motorcycle crash. Can you tell us a little about what happened?
MT: During my college years, I decided to take up a new sport, enduro motorcycle riding. I found it to be an amazing experience and thoroughly enjoyed it. I spent a few years riding a lot with my brother, cousin, and other friends, but unfortunately, in September 2013, I had a severe accident that drastically impacted my life. I collided with a tree at high speed, resulting in the amputation of my leg, a shattered spine, complete paralysis of my left arm, multiple fractures to my facial bones, and various other injuries. Instead of finishing my final year of medical studies, I woke up in the ICU.
CB: What was going through your mind when you woke up?
MT: When I first woke up from a two-week coma, I was horrified and deeply depressed. The sight of my amputated leg and paralyzed arm was overwhelming, and I couldn't fathom what my future would hold. However, after a few weeks, a glimmer of hope appeared, and I started to consider the possibility of adapting to my new circumstances. I remember one of the first things I searched for online while still in the ICU was "cycling prosthetic leg." My brother told me that my mindset hadn't changed and that I would still be able to do the things I loved, just in a different way.
In the early days of my hospital stay, I was unable to speak due to a laryngeal nerve injury, but I could whisper. I called one of my closest friends, crying, and asked him if I would ever be able to ride a bike again. He said, "Yes, you will,” but at that moment, neither of us knew how difficult it would be.
During my recovery, I came across a music video for the song "Waiting All Night" by Rudimental, which featured a BMX rider who had lost his leg and was trying to return to the sport he loved with a prosthetic leg. It was a powerful and emotional moment for me as I watched it while still in the ICU.
A year after the accident, I visited a walking school for amputees in Germany and received my first prosthetic leg, but unfortunately, it was extremely uncomfortable and painful to use. Despite this, I was determined to be independent, so I pushed through the pain and discomfort, and eventually, my body adjusted to it.
A year later, I decided to visit a prosthetic clinic in the United States, where the owner, John Hatting, created a prosthetic leg that allowed me to walk without pain.
CB: So you have just one prosthetic leg you use for everyday activities?
MT: I have two advanced prosthetic legs, but I mainly use the newer one for my daily activities. Both of them have microprocessor knees that can analyze my gait cycle, the angle of the ground, and many other factors. They are truly remarkable pieces of engineering.
However, as you can see in the video, I ride my bike without a prosthetic because it doesn’t provide any benefits, and in fact, it can be distracting.
CB: Can you take us through the timeline from the accident to getting back on the bike?
MT: The first year following my accident was incredibly challenging. I had to come to terms with my new physical limitations and adjust to living in a body that was different from the one I had before. Without a prosthetic leg, I was dependent on the help of my loved ones, which was difficult to accept and made me feel guilty. Despite these challenges, I was determined to finish my studies, and one of my closest friends helped me by pushing me around in a wheelchair every day. I also underwent two surgeries in France for my brachial plexus and dedicated a significant amount of time to rehabilitation. I had to sell my beloved bike to a friend as it seemed impossible for me to ride it again. However, I wanted to stay active and found alternative ways to do so, such as using a rowing machine and learning to swim with only one leg and one arm.
A year later, I finished my education in medical school and finally received my prosthetic leg. The process of learning to walk again was harder than I anticipated, but eventually, I was able to make progress. I began a residency in radiology and gradually became more independent. I felt like I was getting my life back, but biking was still something I couldn't do.
It took me over five years to be able to ride a bike again. During that time, I put in a lot of effort to prepare myself mentally and physically. I spent time rowing and cycling on a stationary bike and often found myself watching a Rudimental music video with tears in my eyes as I imagined myself riding a bike again.
One day, my friend Marek contacted me and told me he had purchased an e-bike and was confident that, with some modifications, I would be able to ride it. I quickly asked him if he was sure and then went to the bike shop and bought my first electric bike.
While we had ideas for modifications, the challenge was that we couldn't find any information online about mountain biking with similar disabilities. So there was no one to turn to for guidance.
I had my entire leg amputated in a procedure called hip disarticulation. This means that I no longer have a thigh on one side, and it makes it difficult for me to hold the seat with my legs. Additionally, I also have complete paralysis in my left arm, making it even more challenging. I knew that having a custom-made seat was crucial for my success, but I had limited ideas on how to create it.
One day, I came across Doug Henry on Instagram. Doug is a three-time AMA motocross champion who sustained a spinal cord injury. Despite his paralysis, he is still able to ride motocross and downhill using a special bucket-style seat that keeps him from falling off the bike. I reached out to Doug, and he was kind enough to provide me with a lot of useful information on seat design. He suggested using a go-kart seat, so I ordered a few different options online. We ultimately chose the best one and modified it to fit my needs.
The process of learning to ride again was difficult. During my first year, I needed a lot of help from my mountain biking friends because I didn't have enough balance to start pedaling. But with every ride, I improved, and by the next season, I was able to ride alone without fear of getting stuck in the woods.
CB: I imagine building the bike wasn’t straightforward. What other things had to be overcome with the bike?
MT: My bike has undergone a few modifications, one of which is the addition of a steering damper. This device is particularly useful when riding with one hand, as it helps to steady the handlebars on rough terrain. Many riders who have faced similar challenges have referred to it as a "game changer." I personally attest to its effectiveness - on the first day I installed it, I couldn't believe how well it worked and even rode into rough parts of a trail on purpose to test it out.
Another improvement I made on my bike is the installation of dual-lever brakes manufactured by Hope. Previously, I was using standard Shimano brakes but found it challenging to have them both on one side, which resulted in having to rely solely on my rear brake. Stopping a 25 kg e-bike with only the rear brake can be quite challenging and often results in a less than a smooth ride. However, installing the Hope dual-lever brake significantly improved the safety and smoothness of my ride.
I also opted for a 130mm short crank from Miranda on my bike. As a single-leg mountain biker, one of the challenges I face is hitting rocks and roots with my pedal when riding in the standing position. This occurs because the pedal I stand on is always in the bottom position, which can be quite dangerous. To mitigate this, I decided to try a shorter crank, which has proved to be an effective solution.
Last but not least, I would like to mention the pedal I use. Due to my condition, I need to ride with a clipless pedal, otherwise, I would not be able to pedal effectively. Interestingly, before my accident, I used to ride with platform pedals and had no experience with clipless pedals. I must admit I was initially intimidated by the idea of using them. So, I started out by experimenting with neodymium magnet pedals, as they were easier to clip out in case I needed to quickly put my foot down for support. However, in the long run, this solution proved to be ineffective.
Currently, I am using Crankbrothers Mallet E LS pedals with Mallet E shoe that comes with the BOA system. This combination has proven to be a great choice for me. I am amazed by how effortless it is to clip in, even when the conditions are pretty muddy. Additionally, the BOA system is very convenient for one-handed use.
BIKE CHECK - GIANT REIGN-E
Mareks bike setup is truly unique. From having all controls on side of the handlebar, 130mm cranks, a custom seat and much more. Watch below as Marek takes us through a look at the his custom set-up.
CB: How do you find the e-bike?
MT: E-bikes have opened up a whole new world of possibilities for me and others who have physical limitations. They allow us to access trails and enjoy the excitement of riding.
However, my needs as a rider with one leg are different from those of a typical rider.
One of my main concerns is that my seat doesn't provide as much stability as I would like. As a result, I often have to lower my seat and rely on the maximum power assist from the motor. I've tried different motors in the past, each with its own advantages and disadvantages. For example, the Bosch motor in my previous Trek bike was incredibly powerful but could be too aggressive on tight trails. My current Giant bike, on the other hand, has a Yamaha motor that provides a more linear power output. This makes it easier for me to navigate tight turns but requires more effort on uphill sections. Despite these challenges, I'm grateful to have e-bikes as an option and will always find ways to make them work for me.
CB: Had you ridden e-bikes before the accident?
MT: In 2013, e-bikes were relatively new, and I had not had the opportunity to experience one before the accident occurred.
CB: Do you have any plans for 2023?
MT: It looks like this is going to be an exciting year. I'm particularly eager to see the response of the mountain biking community to our video. Additionally, I plan to visit more bike parks and aim to improve my riding skills. I also hope to create a more stable seat.
On top of that, I have some medical career aspirations, particularly in the field of MRI imaging for the disease called endometriosis, as there are many patients who have been undiagnosed for years. Lastly, I am also excited about a startup I have co-founded with my friends, which focuses on developing a Virtual Reality app for post-stroke rehabilitation.
CB: Have you ever thought about competing in the Para Olympics?
MT: No. Being a full-time athlete is a demanding and exhausting occupation, and it would be challenging to pursue a medical career at the same time. Additionally, I am not certain if I am mentally ready to participate in competitions.
CB: Ok, and finally, with everything you have been through, is there one piece of advice or one lesson that helped the most?
MT: This story may depict me as a seemingly invulnerable individual, but that is not entirely accurate. In reality, we are not superheroes. I have shed countless tears and struggled greatly before I was able to turn my life around. There were countless times when I nearly gave up. However, there is nothing to be ashamed of in this.
The truth is that I had the right people in my life who constantly encouraged me and believed in me. They supported me every step of the way. Of course, ultimately, it was up to me to do the hard work, but without the emotional support from my loved ones, it would have been way more difficult.
If you're feeling overwhelmed for some reason, know that you're not alone. Many people are going through similar struggles. But it's important to remember that happiness is not defined by physical abilities or possessions. If you have a dream, don't be afraid to share it with the people you love and work together to find solutions. With their support, you can overcome any obstacle.
I want to extend a heartfelt thank you to my family and friends for being by my side during my journey. This year marks 10 years since I faced a major life change, and I couldn't have gotten my life back without them. I also want to thank you guys for giving me the opportunity to share my story and hopefully inspire others.
Adaptive mountain biking is still not as widespread as other adaptive sports, and I am thrilled that Crankbrothers sees the potential in it. I am keen on taking steps to ensure that this sport is more inclusive for people with disabilities in the future.